Land of the Red River Hogs

In Djibouti, a dogged veterinarian's uphill battle to protect a country's wildlife

By / March 2015

My favorite lines about wildlife in Djibouti come from the website “Red River Hog,” the entry reads, “is one of the animals found in Djibouti. It mainly lives in the rain forests. The fur of the animal is usually reddish in color and its mode of nutrition is omnivorous.” Djibouti’s red river hogs, in reality, are as numerous as Djibouti’s rain forests, which is to say, there aren’t any. Or at least, I’ve never seen or heard of either.

There are plenty of other indigenous species with various modes of nutrition. Baboons are a common sight on Route 1, the two-lane highway that connects Djibouti City to Ethiopia. Ostriches can also be seen from this road, a few kilometers before passing the Grand Bara desert. I have only seen them in pairs, a brown female blending in with the dusty backdrop and a male with tar-black feathers and a pink neck. Further north, Forêt de Day is one of the only places left on earth to see the elusive bird immortalized on the Djiboutian 250 franc coin, the francolin. Djibouti is not home to large land animals like in Kenya or Tanzania, but wildlife does abound. Chameleons, sand snakes, wild parrots, flamingos, bee eaters, hyraxes, hyenas.

Some can be seen in the capital city, but most are easier to spot away from the crush of people and noise and exhaust. Unless you believe the superstition that some humans can turn into hyenas during the full moon. These human-hyena hybrids are rumored to devour neighbors and revert to their human forms by morning. If this is true, who knows how many hyenas a person might see while strolling through the market or riding the bus, crammed between a goat and a college student.

This is not to say that there are no animals in the city. Packs of wild dogs, feral cats, and crows are the most obnoxious when alive and the most putrid when turned to road kill. Donkeys pull wagons delivering water, charcoal, and dry grasses. Camels, in town with their nomadic owners, saunter past the gleaming US embassy or munch on plastic bags on the corner of my street, sometimes camels block my running path, and I have to dodge their plodding hooves and vicious teeth. There are herds of goat and black-headed, fatty-butt sheep. Sometimes I am late to meetings because herds of long horned cattle are being driven up Rue de Venice toward the port where they will be shipped to the Middle East and slaughtered.

It is fairly easy to encounter wildlife in Djibouti, but the best place to physically engage with it, besides underwater where you can swim with whale sharks and eels and sting rays with a circumference broader than a human’s arm span, is at the DECAN wildlife refuge. The refuge is not a zoo, but there are animals in cages. Neither is it a safari trip, though there are lions and zebras and savannah-like grasses. DECAN stands for Decouvrir et Aider la Nature, Discover and Help Nature, and it is designed for education, conservation, and the rescue of abused or trafficked animals.

The man behind DECAN is Dr. Bertrand LaFrance. In 1995, LaFrance, who had served with the French military in Djibouti, returned to Djibouti to open a veterinary clinic and deliver safety trainings to the military regarding venomous animals; scorpions, spiders, and snakes. He also developed an interest in the protection of local flora and fauna. He was especially interested in the protection of at-risk species, like sea turtles and the centuries-old acacia trees, threatened due to the overgrazing of domesticated herd animals and the introduction of the invasive and prolific honey mesquite species. Then, in 2001 La France learned of a cheetah being held in a local restaurant.

The cheetah population has been in steady decline in Djibouti partly due to the fragility of the species in dealing with disease and the degradation of its habitat, but also due to human activity – namely the high value placed on cheetah pelts. Starting in 1999, Djiboutian police increased their anti-trafficking actions. In two years they seized at least eleven baby cheetahs, some already dead and some who had endured abuse. Presumably, their destination was Dubai where their fur would be sold at exorbitant prices. For a small country with a tiny yet vital population of cheetahs, this was an environmental disaster.

LaFrance rescued the cheetah that had been chained in the restaurant and kept it in his yard. Soon he had five, then six cheetahs, an untenable situation for life in the city. So LaFrance asked the Djiboutian government for a 39 hectares space where he could relocate the cheetahs and launch a program for studying the genetics and reproduction of the species.

The government agreed (today the space has expanded to 200 acres) and LaFrance developed far grander plans than merely cheetah preservation. DECAN soon focused on the protection of plants and other animals and what began as a cheetah refuge became a project with the goal of reintroducing animals formerly found in the region and of educating people on conservation and nature.

DECAN is located just a fifteen minute drive from Djibouti City. Follow the now-defunct railroad track, pass the Japanese military camp, the American military base Camp Lemonier, and the Turkish military camp. Pass the golf course where caddies carry patches of green turf to lay over the dirt for golfers. Pass huts and flocks of goats and dust-covered hills and women hanging hand-scrubbed laundry out to dry. DECAN is on the left, less than nine kilometers from Loyada, the border with Somaliland.

Construction began on the refuge in 2002 and it was opened to the public in 2003. Colloquially known as the Cheetah Refuge, DECAN is home to ostriches, gazelles, tortoises, caracals, porcupines, hyenas and more. In 2010 the president of Somaliland donated two lions, a 5-year old male and a 2-year old female. In 2012 the lioness gave birth to two boys and in 2014, to two more babies, though one died from complications at birth. As recently as January 2015, through a cooperation with the Beauval Zoo in France, DECAN obtained zebras and oryx.

Dirt paths cut through the thorny mesquite bushes and lead visitors past the caracal, or lynx, and past the baboons. The baboons act friendly and will grasp a finger or two but will also suddenly flash scary sharp teeth or a bright red bottom. The ostriches seem equally aggressive. When the lions pounce on the calf fetuses DECAN obtains from the market butchers, I’m thankful for the fence, newly electrified.

There is no fence, however, between visitors and the zebras and oryx. A Djiboutian guard with a long, narrow stick, opens a gate and we walk over a wooden bridge and then there, right in front of us like horses in Halloween costumes, are the zebras. Oryx with fierce-looking horns, calmly chewing grass. I could almost touch them.

DECAN is a popular school field trip option. US and French soldiers posted in peaceful Djibouti volunteer at the refuge, families tour and picnic, and the Djiboutian government gives regular and generous support to the work of DECAN and Dr. LaFrance. But the message of caring for the land and its creatures hasn’t caught on yet in Djibouti on a massive scale.

Still, there are positive signs. In the past six months garbage trucks have started making regular rounds of the city to pick up trash. The truck sings out an ice-cream truck jingle that all Djibouti Town residents can now hum in our sleep. A few years ago a new career option became available to women, street sweepers. They wear matching peach ankle-length jackets that look like lab coats with reflective lights on them. Under the watch of a male supervisor and most often working after dark, the women labor in groups of five or six, moving from street to street and sweeping up the garbage that gathers along sidewalks and snags beneath thorn bushes.

So efforts to clean up the city are increasing. But a handful of trucks or a few groups of street sweepers are not enough for a city of 600,000. Sometimes when I drive behind open-air dump trucks I can count the bags and cardboard packaging boxes that fly out the back end. Despite the efforts of the new garbage trucks, piles of trash accumulate on street corners. These are left behind for goats and birds to munch down.

Trash heaps also line the road to the DECAN refuge. Rusted out cars, broken toilets, tires and tires and tires, diapers. Sometimes black, acrid smoke curls up from the mountainous piles as someone lights a fire in an attempt to burn down the garbage. Goats eat plastic bags. Truck drivers toss food cartons out of windows. Children open candies and let the wrappers float to the ground.

Oppressive, sometimes 120-degree heat, and scant natural water sources make animal survival in Djibouti a challenge. Drought leaves animal skeletons alongside the highway. LaFrance is fighting an uphill battle of animal and environmental protection and conservation in Djibouti.

There may very well be red river hogs in Djibouti, there may even be rain forests. I hope there are, along with the Nile crocodile which also supposedly lives in Djibouti but of which there is not a single photo. Perhaps these creatures and forests are tucked away in the north past Lac Abbé or hidden in unreachable hills and valleys near Mount Mousa Ali, Djibouti’s tallest peak. Perhaps they are only seen by the same humans who turn into hyenas during the full moon. Maybe I’ll even see them one day.

In the meantime, I’m happy to let a baboon hold my finger at DECAN, to back away from the ostrich, and to support the conservation work of Dr. Bertrand LaFrance and his team.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes from Djibouti City.


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